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This morning Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times from Timbuktu, in the West African nation of Mali. There, he says, the Al Quaeda rebels are gone, driven into the Sahara by the French military, taking their “hijacked, extremist distortion of Islam” with them. But, Kristof writes, hunger remains, starvation in an economy that collapsed under the extremist regime, which left people too terrified to go out doors to farm their own land.[i]
“Give us this day our daily bread.” I’ll begin today, not with bread, but with fish, another staple of the ancient near-eastern diet. After all, lots of the stories of Jesus pair those two, don’t they? Bread and fish multiplied for the hungry masses…
On January 24, 1986, Moshele and Luvi Lufan were walking on the shore of Yam Kinneret… that’s the modern day name for what we know as Lake Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Tiberius, or the Sea of Galilee. The two brothers were fishermen and members of a nearby kibbutz. They were also amateur archaeologists. Israel was in the midst of a drought, so the lake had receded, exposing muddy shores that had long been underwater. In the course of their walk, the brothers found exactly what they had been hoping they might find someday: a beautifully preserved first century fishing boat, buried in the mud. They had found the only known surviving fishing boat from the era in which Jesus is believed to have climbed into and out of fishing boats on a regular basis.
One of the most remarkable things about the boat was how extensively and expertly it had been repaired. The keel of the boat was a combination of cedar, from an older boat, plus carob and jujube (also known as Christ’s Thorn). The planks were cedar, the frames were oak, and altogether, there were twelve different types of wood in that boat. In other words, it had been kept afloat by expert craftsmen working with inferior materials over a long period of time. The scientists who eventually analyzed it believe the boat had a useful lifetime totaling about a hundred years. This boat speaks of hardship. It speaks of desperation to stay afloat, in more ways than one.[ii]
Why are the gospels so… fishy? Why does the Sea of Galilee, Yam Kinneret, figure so largely in the gospel narrative? Why did Jesus, essentially, relocate there, leaving his hometown of Nazareth to join fishermen in the north shore town of Capernaum, making that his home? And what does this all have to do with “Give us this day our daily bread”?
To understand all these things it helps to know just a little about the politics of the day. Food and politics are so often inextricably connected. Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee, and, to vastly oversimplify matters, he spent much of his career as a puppet-ruler trying to live up to the reputation of his father Herod the Great. So, be became a builder: he built his capital city of Tiberius, named for his patron the Emperor, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. He renamed the sea the “Sea of Tiberius.” And in order to keep the income flowing, from the people to himself, and from himself to his patron… because that is how patronage and being a client-king worked… Herod took over the Sea of Galilee/ Tiberius in a dramatic way, in a way that was typical for the Roman Empire.
The Sea of Galilee became part of an economy that was designed for the exclusive benefit of those in power. As a result, peasants, including fishermen, were kept at subsistence level by a series of taxes, tithes, and tributes. All wealth flowed to the top of the pyramid. Here are just a few of the taxes fishermen would pay: if they owned their own boats—which was rare—they were taxed on every item used to make and stock the boat, flax for the sails, wood for the hull, stone for the anchors. If they didn’t own their boat—which was far more common—they paid exorbitant fees to lease them. They paid a tax to acquire the right to fish, and they paid a head tax on each and every fish they caught. There were taxes levied on the transportation of the fish and on its processing. And this doesn’t count the tributes—taxes levied by rulers simply because they could, taxes paid to them simply because they had the power to demand it. Tax collectors were legally entitled to publicly and viciously beat anyone who dared to try to evade them, and all this money flowed through tax collectors and right to the top, to client rulers like Herod, to regional governors like Pontius Pilate, to the Emperor himself.[iii]
“Give us this day our daily bread.” We are in the second half of the Lord’s Prayer, the half concerned with us, with people, with our needs and wants. And though the first word in English is “Give,” the first words in Greek are, literally, “the bread of us.” A literal translation of the whole sentence would be something like, “The bread of us, ongoing, be giving us today.” That is what Jesus taught his listeners to pray.
Like all the other petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, this is so dense, it deserves to be unpacked.
The bread-of-us: Meaning, our food, the food we, the community, need. Calling it “our” bread tells us that it is food that is shared. The Lord’s Prayer is emphatically a communal prayer. Even when prayed alone in a bedroom or out in the middle of nature, it is still about being in community, and asking for what the community needs.
Consider: one of the first big dustups in church history occurs at Corinth, a controversy about how the Lord’s Supper was celebrated. In his first letter to that church, Paul writes:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?
~1 Corinthians 11:20-22a
When the Corinthians gathered for the Lord’s Supper, it wasn’t as we celebrate it, with a small piece of bread and a sip from a cup for all comers. It was a full meal. And those who were well off and with plenty of leisure time arrived early, and brought with them their favorite delicacies and wines, and proceeded to feast and get drunk. Later, after the workday had ended, the peasants arrived—fishermen, farmers, those who were living under the system of taxes and fees that kept them at subsistence level. There was nothing left for them. The food had gone to the wealthy and the poor were left hungry. Paul, to say the least, was not pleased. He refused to recognize it as the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was not a brown bag affair where everyone brings their own personal supply of food and eats accordingly. It was about food that is shared, so that everyone in the community had enough, so that no one would go hungry.
The essential conflict is this: Who owns the food? Does Herod? Or Tiberius? Or the wealthiest patron of the church? Paul’s answer, Jesus’ answer, is: God owns the food. God owns the lake, by whatever name you want to call it, and God owns the fish that swim in the lake, too. And God’s plan, God’s kingdom vision for creation, is that there is enough for all. When God creates seeds to go into the ground and germinate, and sun and rain to nourish the crops and help them grow, and people to weed and harvest the crops and bring them to markets and homes, there is enough for everybody.
And so, on six separate occasions, as the gospels record it, Jesus found himself in a crowd of hungry people, and on those occasions, despite pressure from his inner circle to send the people away to fend for themselves, Jesus instead invited people to sit for a meal that would be shared. He looked to the food that was available… usually some ridiculously small amount of bread and fish for some ridiculously large number of people. And then Jesus did something to that food. He took the food. He blessed the food. He broke the food. And he gave the food. And in doing that, Jesus said, Look. In God’s economy, there is enough. If we take what God has given us, and if we give thanks for it (instead of imagining we did it all under our own power), and if we break it into sharable amounts, and if we give it away, there will be enough. God has created things in such a way that there will be enough.
Now, it is true that there are powers and forces, from Herod to Al Qaeda to Monsanto, that will tell us that the food is not, in fact, God’s, but their own possession, for their enrichment, and for their benefit. And I am not suggesting that farmers do not have a right to farm crops and take them to market. But I am suggesting that the vision for our provision outlined in the Lord’s prayer has, as its basis, a deeply unjust situation in which the vast majority of the people were being starved so that a handful of the wealthy could feast. I am suggesting that this is precisely why Jesus joined the people of that region, and moved there and lived and taught among them. And I am suggesting that Jesus’ bold assertion, that the earth was indeed the Lord’s, and everything in it, may well have cost him his life.
This week, a photograph appeared on my Facebook feed, a gorgeous picture of lettuce, onions, zucchini, Swiss chard, radishes, yellow beans, and rhubarb from our own UPC garden for CHOW. And so I proudly shared it with my friends, and one of them, Josh Thomas, shared it with the thousands of people who subscribe to his daily prayer page and emails. Here is what Josh said about our harvest:
Firstfruits just a few days ago, from the community garden at the Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, New York. … they’ve got a whole lot of goodies. I always try to show a special picture on Sundays … Sundays should be special, and here’s a wee example of a church feeding its community. They had the land, they gathered some volunteers, and shortly they got rhubarb and onions, yellow beans and radishes. God is glorious, and all the People have to do is pull weeds. Then we eat!
We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
And we are also praying:
Help us to know that the blessing of food is from you.
Help us to trust that “for today” is enough.
Help us to know that, when we share, there is enough.
Help us to know that the blessing of food is for all, that we are all in this together.
Give us this day our daily bread. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Nicholas Kristof, “Quaeda Rebels Are Gone. Death Isn’t,” The New York Times, July 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/07/opinion/sunday/kristof-qaeda-rebels-are-gone-death-isnt.html?_r=0.
[ii] John Dominic Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of The Lord’s Prayer (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010), Chapter 6: “Give Us Our Daily Bread.”